When Ursula discovers her daughter Miri is engaged to a Syrian man living in Budapest, she is torn between generosity and fear. Miri, returning to London to visit her sick father, would rather be with her fiancé than in a city she no longer recognisesby David Szalay / December 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
“My gardener,” Ursula said. “You remember my -gardener—Shamgar?”
“Yes,” Miri said. “Sort of.”
“I think he might be gay.”
Ursula laughed. “I think he might be having some sort of affair with the man who works next door.”
“Good for him,” Miri said. She didn’t seem very interested—her mind seemed elsewhere. Still, Ursula went on with it. “Once I saw the man from next door coming out of Shamgar’s room very early in the morning. I hadn’t been able to sleep and I was up before dawn and I’d just stepped outside when the door of Shamgar’s room opened—and I expected it to be Shamgar of course, but it wasn’t. It was this guy from next door. I don’t even know his name. “Oh, hello,” I said. And he just nodded and hurried off. And when I mentioned it to Shamgar later he was very embarrassed. I didn’t pursue it.”
“It’s none of your business,” Miri said.
“I know. Of course it isn’t. He is married though. Shamgar. He has two kids back in India. I think the other guy’s married as well.”
“I’m getting married,” Miri said. “What do you feel like?” she asked, picking up the menu. “What’s the special today?”
They were in Menza, a popular restaurant near her flat in Budapest. Ursula had arrived on the early flight from Doha and had taken a taxi straight there. She said, “No, Miranda, what do you mean you’re getting married?”
“To someone I know?”
“Who d’you think?”
Miranda, when her mother said nothing else, finally put down the menu. “You could at least pretend to be pleased.”
“I’m pleased,” Ursula said. “I’m surprised.”
“I can see that. Why?”
“It just seems sudden. You and… and Moussa have been seeing each other for how long? Not that long.”
“More than a year,” Miri said.
“Is it that long?”
“Well,” Ursula said, “still.”
“What do you mean? Is that not long enough? How long do you think is enough? Two years? Five? Ten? How long had you and Dad known each other before you decided to get married? Twenty minutes?”
“About four months. And look how that worked out.”
“I know how it worked out. I did the therapy. Let’s face it,” Miri said. “You’re surprised because of who he is.”
“No,” Ursula immediately insisted. And then, “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“The fact that he’s a Muslim,” Ursula said, “has nothing to do with it.”
“To do with what?”
At that moment the waiter asked them what they wanted to drink. They ordered some fizzy water and asked for a few more minutes to look at the menus.
Which they did, making suggestions to each other over the tops of them, and narrowing down the possibilities, until the waiter was there again and they ordered.
“Look,” Ursula said, in German again—they had spoken English to the waiter. “If this is what you want to do, of course I’m pleased. Of course I am.”
“But,” Miri prompted.
“But nothing. When did he ask you to marry him?”
She made the question sound like a matter of minor interest, and as if she had already accepted the major fact, and took a sip of water as she waited for the answer.
“He didn’t,” Miri said. “It was my idea.”
Ursula tried to sound unfazed. “Okay.”
“He would never ask me,” Miri said. “He’d understand how that might look.”
“How might it look?”
“Like he wanted something. Like it might help him stay in Europe. I don’t know.”
“Well it might,” Ursula pointed out.
“Yes, it might. So? Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Is that what this is about?” Ursula asked.
“No,” Miri said. “That’s not what it’s about.”
After lunch they took Ursula’s suitcase to Miri’s flat, which was in a quiet, dirty street on the other side of the avenue. The buildings of the street looked ominously fortified. They stopped at a huge wooden door, in which there was a smaller door. A row of plaster faces, caked with smut, alternately laughed and cried on the building’s façade, one under each of the windows of the first floor. The façade itself might once have been turquoise. Now it was a sickly grey. Miri punched some numbers into a keypad and they went through the smaller door and into a tall courtyard under a distant square of sky.
“This is where you live now, is it?” Ursula asked, taking in their surroundings—the silo of silent doors and windows above them, and only a pigeon or two in evidence.
“It’s where we live,” Miri said.
“He lives here too?”
“Oh,” Ursula said. The last thing she had heard Moussa lived in a precarious semi-legal flat-share with some other Syrians. “Is he here now?” she asked.
“Don’t think so,” Miri said.
Ursula had only met Moussa twice. He was quite handsome, obviously intelligent, humorous, sweet—there was nothing to object to. Except that his very pleasantness seemed suspect, somehow. It seemed implausible that such an appealing person had no existing ties in life. He was in his early thirties, about 10 years older than Miri. Ursula wanted to ask her daughter how she could be sure that he didn’t have a family back in Syria—a wife, kids, whatever. There was no way of knowing. Ursula had thought about it just that morning on the plane from Doha. There used to be a time when flights from the Gulf to Europe flew over Iraq and Syria—that was the shortest way—only now they had to avoid the sky over those places and fly over Iran and Turkey instead. She had watched, on the seatback screen, her own flight do just that this morning, divert around Syria and Iraq, and she had thought of Moussa, of course, and of his unknown life down there, in that secret place—a place so secret that it wasn’t even possible to fly over it and look at it from 10,000 metres up. What had he left behind there? What ties did he still have? Impossible to say. Look at Shamgar, she had thought, picking at her Qatar Airways breakfast. People were able to live multiple lives.
There seemed no way of putting this to Miri, though.
She did ask her, as they walked through the streets after -leaving her luggage at the flat, what she knew about his life in Syria.
“Quite a lot actually,” Miri said.
“He’s a vet?” Ursula asked.
The question seemed to irritate Miranda. “You know that,” she said.
Yes, Ursula knew that.
He wasn’t working as a vet in Hungary, of course—his -asylum-seeker status prevented him from working officially and what he actually did was teach private Arabic lessons, mostly to postgrad students at CEU, who mostly took them as an act of solidarity. That was how Miri had met him.
They had arrived at the Danube. Ursula stopped for a moment to take in the view—the hills piled up on the far side of the water with their spires and turrets. Overhead the sun was breaking whitely through clouds.
They set off across the windy bridge. In the middle a subsidiary section swung down to one side, providing access to Margaret Island. The trees of the island were still more or less leafless but massed together they displayed a sort of green haze that dwindled down the river to another large bridge just visible in the distance.
“What else do you know about him?” Ursula asked.
“How much do you ever know about somebody?” Miri said.
Ursula wasn’t having that. “Plenty, after a while. Has he been married before?” she asked.
“No,” Miri said.
Ursula had not taken all that much interest in the man -previously—she had assumed that Miri’s thing with him—and that was how she had thought of it, as an undefined “thing”—wouldn’t last long. With that safely assumed, she had in fact found herself feeling cautiously proud of it. That her daughter was involved with a Syrian refugee did no harm to her liberal bona fides, and she had on occasion more or less shown off about it to a particular section of her friends though she had always been careful, she now saw, to describe the attachment in ways that made it seem fundamentally unserious and ephemeral.
The whole of Margaret Island was a park, and large enough to forget at times that you were on an island at all. They wandered along its winding asphalt paths. There was an open-air theatre and further on a sort of miniature zoo—delicate footed deer in a shabby enclosure. Some kids were feeding them through the fence. On all the trees hung limp sprigs of green that would soon be leaves. Spring was unstoppably on its way.
At one point Ursula asked, “You’re not pregnant, are you?”
And Miri said, “No.”
There was a tension between them. It was difficult to say when exactly it had started but it was there and it was increasingly -inhibiting. They were talking less and less.
“Have you told your father?” Ursula asked a few minutes later.
“Not yet,” Miri said. “I’m going to London on Wednesday. I’ll tell him then. He’s got other things to worry about.”
“I know. What’s the news with that?” Ursula asked.
Miri’s father had prostate cancer.
“He’s finished the radiotherapy,” Miri told her. “That was a few weeks ago. On Thursday he has to go into the hospital to do some scans.”
And then Ursula said, “I think I need to sit down for a moment.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing. I just feel a bit dizzy.”
They sat down on the nearest bench, which was under a tree. In turbulent surges the tree made a hissing sound when the wind went through it.
Ursula felt her blood pressure normalise. She felt securely situated again. Miranda was sitting next to her looking the other way across a wide lawn on which numerous games of football were in progress. She looked so young, Ursula thought. She had one of those stud things in her nose, and the skin around it seemed slightly inflamed. The sight of the inflamed skin made Ursula’s eyes fill with tears. She asked herself what it was about the situation—what exactly it was—that made her feel so uneasy about it, that made her feel that it was a threat to her daughter’s happiness, and therefore to her own. She tried to sort out the things that didn’t trouble her from the things that did—they seemed all mixed up together and it was hard to separate them out. Why do you need to marry him? she wanted to ask. Why marry him? People don’t just automatically do that any more—why do you need to? It seemed so absurdly old fashioned. What was the point?
The extremities of the tree strained in the wind. Ursula sighed.
“Are you all right?” Miri asked.
“Think so.” Ursula dabbed her eyes with a paper -tissue. “So am I going to see him, Moussa, while I’m here?”
“Of course,” Miri said. “He wants to see you.”
“Now?” Miri suggested.
“Is he around?”
“Probably.” She laughed. “It’s not like he has loads to do.” She spoke to him on the phone and then said, “He’ll meet us in half an hour.”
They walked back through the park to the bridge and took a tram to the place where Moussa had said he would meet them, a Starbucks. “He likes Starbucks,” Miri explained.
“Does he?” Ursula asked, unsure what to make of that.
The tram slid along an avenue, making a loud -electric hum every time it sped up.
They left it at a noisy intersection and waited at some traffic lights. The Starbucks was on the other side of the road.
He was already there. Ursula spotted him immediately. It was extraordinary, she thought, how differently she saw him now, and in that moment of seeing him, as he stood up to meet them in the Starbucks, she understood that, in some way, that must have been Miri’s purpose in taking the unexpected, the almost melodramatic step of announcing her intention to marry him: to make her see him differently.
She had not seen her father for nearly a year. It had been that long since she was last in London. She felt a tingle of nervousness in her stomach as she emerged from the Tube at Notting Hill Gate. From there it was a short walk to the street where he lived. The layout of the area was familiar to her, and when she turned into the street she saw that the trees which lined it had put out their blossoms—the snow-like excess that lasted for a week or two every spring. She remembered the sight of that, and seeing it she remembered other things as well, like how for years she and her father had walked together every school-day morning to the bus stop on Westbourne Grove. She had spent much of her childhood in this street, had lived here until she was 12, when her parents separated and her mother took her to live in Germany. Since then, she had only seen her father once or twice a year.
He looked a lot older than the last time she had seen him. It was partly the illness, of course, and the effects of the treatment. He looked shrunken in his open-necked shirt, his hair short, veins forking prominently on his temples. When he embraced her he didn’t feel strong. It seemed strange that he was still in his fifties. He was talking about lunch. He seemed to think there was some problem there, though she wasn’t sure what it was. “Why don’t we just go to the Walmer Castle?” she said.
She went to the loo. The loo, like everything else in the flat, was the same as ever. There was the stack of out-of-date Time Outs and music magazines next to the toilet—she had very definite memories of those from her early schooldays, when they had seemed like mysterious things from an impenetrable adult world. (Their total lack of mystery today was somehow disappointing.) There was the tiny frosted window transmitting the green of the garden, to which the upstairs flat had no other access, and there was the Kennedy quote framed on the wall next to the light switch. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.
She was in London to be with her father when he went to St Mary’s Hospital for the scans the next day. She had hated the thought of him doing that alone. So that was why she was there. Still, there was the other thing. Her “news”—it would just be weird not to mention that while she was here. When, though? She thought she should probably wait until after the hospital. She didn’t want him to feel she was there to talk about herself. And she wasn’t sure how he would take her news anyway.
She washed her hands in the tiny sink where the water trickled as feebly from the tap as it always had, and went back to the living room.
“The Walmer Castle?” she suggested again.
Her father seemed even more nervously self-absorbed than normal. “Yeah, okay,” he said. He put on old grey Converse trainers and a knee-length navy overcoat and they walked to the pub.
It was while they were there waiting for their pad thais that they first touched on the subject of his illness: she asked him how he was feeling.
He shrugged and said, “Okay.”
There was this little unhealed thing between them. When the diagnosis was made, in January, he hadn’t told her himself that he had cancer. She had heard it from her grandmother, who lived in Spain. “Why did I have to hear it from her?” she had asked him at the time. He hadn’t answered the question then, and they had hardly spoken since. It came up again as they waited for their food. He said, “I was embarrassed. I know that sounds lame.”
She had, after some hesitation, ordered a small wine. She took a sip of it.
“I was ashamed,” he said. “There’s something shameful about it—dying.” He laughed. “It’s a shit look.”
“You’re not dying.”
“We’re all dying, darling.”
“You know what I mean.”
At that point the food arrived, and anyway there didn’t seem to be much more to say on the subject. To talk about anything else, though, seemed impossible as well. So they ended up not talking much at all.
She wondered, as they sat there afterwards while she finished her wine, whether to tell him her news. It didn’t feel appropriate somehow, and she let the moment pass, and then he was paying for the meal and they were in the street again.
She suggested that later they might see a film at one of the cinemas at Notting Hill Gate—-the Gate, she said, or the Coronet.
“The Coronet’s closed,” he told her. “Few years ago.”
“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know.” It made her feel like a stranger in the area, not knowing something like that. She said, “Okay. Well why don’t we see what’s on at the Gate?”
A French film called Fifty Springtimes was on that evening. Neither of them had heard of it and they stood outside wondering whether to get tickets. She read out the film’s description in the programme. “César awardwinner Agnès Jaoui gives an intelligent and affecting performance as Aurore; 50, flirty and not-so-thriving, her world is turned upside down when a past flame returns, reigniting her lust for life and love. A witty and wonderful ode to embracing age whilst staying young.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” her father said.
“Doesn’t that sound okay?”
“Embracing age whilst staying young? What does that even mean? And who says whilst any more -anyway? It’s absurd.”
“I think we should see it,” she said. She thought it might be preferable for them not to spend the whole evening in the flat.
Her father insisted on paying for the tickets.
That afternoon he had a lie-down, which he never used to do. She spoke to Moussa on Viber, almost whispering in the living room, as if she was a teenager, and then, as her father was still asleep, she went for a solitary walk around the area. She eyed Westbourne Grove with a kind of distaste—used to the streets of a much poorer city now, its parade of wealth slightly shocked her. She felt what seemed like the fundamental hostility of the place—with its evident obsession with money and status—to someone like Moussa, who was entirely without either.
She had a half pint on her own in the Sun in Splendour, wondering what she was doing in London. Her father didn’t seem particularly pleased that she was there, and the place itself seemed foreign to her. She missed Moussa. She walked back to the flat and made a light supper out of some things she had picked up from Sainsbury’s, which she and her father ate together, though neither of them had much of an appetite. As they ate, he asked her about her work at CEU, and she told him something about it. Though he made an effort to seem interested, she felt very aware, as she always did with him, of her own seriousness, a quality which never seemed to fit properly with his kind of Englishness—ironic, mocking and evasive.
He asked her when she was going to get her doctorate.
“About two years,” she told him.
“I hope I live that long,” he said, and laughed.
After supper they went to see the film.
She didn’t sleep well. She was on the sofa, which unfolded into a flimsy bed. It was odd and unsettling to lie there surrounded by the looming shapes of the living room. It wasn’t properly dark—a street light outside the window shone in through the pale blind. She was troubled by a sense of separation from her own past. She was also troubled, in another way, by the fact that she hadn’t yet told her father her news. Lying there in the semi-darkness, it seemed starkly obvious to her that she had to tell him before they went to the hospital in the morning, that if she waited until afterwards, it might be too late.
“I have something to tell you,” she said. “Moussa and I are getting married.”
He stared at her for a moment, and then asked, quite pleasantly, “He’s not some nutcase is he?”
She stared at him, wondering what to make of the question. Finally she said, “No, I don’t think he’s a nutcase.”
“You know,” her father said, and he was still smiling, “some Islamic nutter?”
“He’s not like that.”
“Moussa?” He lifted his mug to his mouth. It was the next morning. They were sitting at the kitchen table. Neither of them was eating anything.
“That’s his name, yes.”
“Do you love him?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, feeling that she mustn’t hesitate or seem even slightly unsure.
“Well that’s the important thing, I suppose. Why doesn’t he come and visit?”
“Why doesn’t he come to London?”
She said, “He has an expired Syrian passport—might be a problem at Heathrow?”
Her father laughed at that. He seemed very amused by the whole situation. “Yes, it might.”
“He’s not allowed to leave Hungary,” she explained.
“It’s where he was granted asylum.”
“I thought the nasty Hungarians didn’t do that sort of thing.”
“They used to. He arrived in early 2015.”
“Ah. Well,” her father said, “maybe I’ll come and meet him there. If I live long enough that is…”
“Will you stop saying things like that,” she said.
Her tone took him by surprise.
“Please,” she said, “just stop saying things like that. I know you find it hard to be serious about anything.”
She had never spoken to him in that way before. She had no idea how he would take it. She waited, looking at him, feeling unexpectedly euphoric.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m frightened.”
“I know, I understand…”
“That’s why I say things like that.”
“I know,” she said. “But some things are serious. Which is frightening.”
Though she didn’t want it, she poured the last of the coffee from the cafetière into her mug. He had had that cafetière for as long as she could remember, all her life. Neither of them seemed to know what to say next. She looked at her watch. “We should go soon,” she said. His appointment at the hospital was in an hour.
They put on their shoes and jackets and were about to leave when he stopped for a moment at the door and said, “I’m happy you’re here.”
“That’s okay,” she said.
They went down the stairs. It was still quite early, a few minutes after eight. They walked to the bus stop on Westbourne Grove. Clouds moved in the sky, the sun came and went, and as they reached the corner the wind dislodged blossoms from all the trees in the street.
From TURBULENCE by David Szalay, published by Jonathan Cape at £9.99 Copyright © David Szalay 2018